At first glance, Derrick Woods-Morrow’s “Scirocco-Arifi: Where the Sand Meets the Sea” seems to rely at least in part on shock value. A large photograph of the artist posing nude with his back turned to the camera is placed near the entrance of the exhibition. I saw several people walking by the gallery do a double take upon seeing it through the gallery’s large front windows. Reading the list of artworks in the show, I also noticed a photographic process I was unfamiliar with called a Seménotype. There is a reason I hadn’t heard this word before; it refers to a proprietary, one-of-a-kind, silver-based photographic process created with human semen. Woods-Morrow worked with an unnamed chemist to develop the process; each print supposedly requires 150 or so samples of bodily fluids to complete. The subject matter of these prints is a grouping of Eadweard Muybridge’s famous studies of a horse running, but they have been overlayed together on top of each other. The legs of the horse are blurred by their motion from frame to frame, and the print is anchored around the relative stillness of an unnamed Black rider in Muybridge’s photographs.
While the artworks in “Scirocco-Arifi” are immediately visceral, after spending some time with them they feel decidedly mundane. This isn’t a slight to the work; rather, Woods-Morrow expertly uses emotionally charged imagery and processes as a foil: something to be overcome through education and careful observation of the way his artworks collectively speak to subtle, hopeful, and ordinary ways of existing within flawed social structures. The living room of empty wine glasses and soft ambiance of Woods-Morrow’s nude photograph hint that the work is about comfort and the importance of simply existing in quiet moments. Black bodies aren’t always given the freedom to exist without careful scrutiny, and the most remarkable part of Woods-Morrow’s photograph is the disinterested, almost academic treatment of the scene. The title of the work alludes to this as well: “Veillance, A Documentation of Simply Being” can be understood in contrast to surveillance and sousveillance. If surveillance is a recording created for the purpose of monitoring the public and sousveillance is a recording created for the purpose of monitoring figures of authority, “veillance” is just a recording. Woods-Morrow’s photograph presents a nude Black man in a neutral context, and its success hinges on the viewer’s realizing how rare of an occurrence this is. If people outside the gallery saw a white woman reclining nude in this same context, it wouldn’t surprise them in the same way.
Woods-Morrow’s interest in interrupting and then reestablishing mundane routines is also present in the work “1492: A New World View,” in which a TV monitor, resting on jars of olive-oil soap, displays a video of figures running, jumping, walking and just generally hanging out around a large monument covered in construction scaffolding. Occasionally, sections of the structure will fizzle and glitch out, or one of the runners will phase through the scaffolding, and the viewer realizes much of the scene is digitally animated. These surprises create a temporary sense of uneasiness before the tranquil atmosphere of the video lulls viewers back into the world of ordinary occurrences. The animation is glitchy enough that even a short amount of time spent with it will raise suspicions, but the scene otherwise doesn’t change much throughout the course of the video. And why should it? Everyday life isn’t immune to the occasional shock or twist either, especially in the context of monuments under construction, but we carry on anyway.
Archiving, framing, and other forms of art preservation usually result in a numbing of the emotive aspects of an artwork—the glare from a pane of glass in front of a painting, for example, can prevent viewers from seeing the entirety of the painting from any single vantage point. The way materials are handled in Woods-Morrow’s artworks demonstrates an acute awareness of this. The finish and presentation of his artworks is instead used to strengthen the connective tissue between the materials that Woods-Morrow chooses to work with and the sociocultural factors surrounding them. In a series of artworks titled “Waveform with disappearing horizon line,” Woods-Morrow first collected lint from laundromats in Black neighborhoods, pressed this lint into thin, papery sheaves of material, then dried these thin forms on chain link fences. He then painted them with indigo house paint. The act of painting a wall with house paint is usually a protective measure, but in Woods-Morrow’s work it is used to interrogate the importance of domestic decoration: white Americans for much of this country’s history valued indigo dye so highly they were willing to use slavery as a tool for producing it. The house paint that Woods-Morrow uses in these artworks is of course fake indigo: Using real indigo pigments is expensive, and cost-conscious consumers are perfectly content with big-box-store paint brands’ best attempt to mimic the color using cheaper materials. Steeping the pressed lint from Black communities in this mass-produced indigo house paint isn’t really an aesthetic device; it instead functions as a depiction of collective trauma, even as that trauma is internalized and transformed.
Lint is a great analog for the way Woods-Morrow aggregates materials with a shared history together. This lint is a mass formed from bits of fabric imbued with the memory of so many different people. The impossibility of disentangling any individual’s contribution to this social fabric lets us see larger trends more clearly, like a dryer averaging one’s clothing into heterogenous fuzz. The social weight of lint collected in Black neighborhoods provides gravitas to a material that is frequently used as an example of insignificance. Using lint in this way very literally represents how a community can make something out of nothing.
Lint is part of other artworks in the exhibition as well: In “Connective Tissue (Two Loops and a Knot),” the lint is spun into a long rope, and it is priced by the foot. Other lint ropes in the exhibition have been deep fried in Caribbean palm oil using the artist’s mother’s fried-catfish recipe, then sealed with resin. There is a whimsical quality to this treatment which provided me some respite from the heavy themes present throughout the exhibition. By incorporating his mother’s recipe into the artwork, Woods-Morrow calls attention to the history that he shares with other lint producers. I also see connections between the act of laundering and the act of cooking as cyclical maintenance, and this ties in with Woods-Morrow’s ongoing exploration of invisible labor.
An attention to mundane labor permeates the exhibition. A photograph titled “Locomotion I, A Documentation of Labored Upon Residual Processes” depicts discarded furniture on a slightly tilted street. Woods-Morrow has used a long exposure time to blur himself approaching these materials, which feel stoic and solid in comparison. Several works in the show are titled with some variation of the word “locomotion,” and this focus on movement and the dynamism that it implies connects back to Muybridge: the first noteworthy photographic record of movement as a subject matter. I see these blurred photographs as a document of a very mundane form of performative dance, queering the legacy of movement in photography toward multiplicity and away from the scientific guise that early photographic experimentation used to canonize the Western colonial gaze and its treatment of anonymous marginalized subjects.
I was also struck by the inclusion of a single glass work in the exhibition. A spot-lit remnant from the process Woods-Morrow used in his work at Gallery 400 earlier this year is placed near the back of the gallery. From the exhibition text: “This glass is infused with a portion of the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was murdered, complicated feelings, the artist’s bodily fluids, wake work.” Woods-Morrow has never shied away from hard-hitting topics that ultimately affect all of us, and this exhibition succeeds in its representation of both personal conviction and poignant truth.
“Scirocco-Arifi: Where the Sand Meets the Sea” is on view at Engage Projects, 864 North Ashland through January 5, 2024.
Frank Geiser is a visual artist and arts writer based in the south suburbs of Chicago. He is a professor of Visual Communication and Design at Purdue University Northwest.